The Beatles and Ambiguity #1

I was putting my daughter to bed the other night and just as I was on my way out of the room she said ‘Dad, why do you like the Beatles so much?’

‘I love their music,’ I said.

‘But why do you love their music?’

‘It makes me feel happy,’ I said. ‘Even when it’s sad, it still makes me feel happy.’

‘But why does it make you feel happy?’ she said, with the grin in her voice of the kid who knows she’s approaching the Explanation Event Horizon. I gave her a last hug and said goodnight.

The question of why the Beatles’ music makes us feel happy is the question at the heart of the Beatles’ greatness, because not all pop music makes us feel happy, nor was meant to. I would speculate that people who despise or dislike the Beatles do so precisely because the Beatles’ music makes them feel happy, which is not how they want to feel. This seems to have been behind the way that American rock critics started to mistrust the Beatles, around about the time of Sgt. Pepper. The USA in 1967 was a far more tense and divided place than the UK in 1967, which is not to say that the UK didn’t have its class divisions, but neither did it have an army festering in Vietnam.

Lester Bangs‘ 1975 rant about the Beatles, ‘Dandelions in Still Air’, is a classic piece of rock writing, not so much because it illuminates the Beatles’ music but because it speaks for the way people began to feel about the Beatles in the mid-1970s. The Beatles have by now traversed the strange abyss by which a cultural phenomenon, valued in its day, passes through a phase of being worthless before gaining more and more value until it’s pretty much unassailably part of the pantheon. Bangs’ essay is a map of the low point in the Beatles’ reputation. What he has to say about them amounts to the idea that, in 1975, it’s not difficult to regard the Beatles as being over with. Their recorded legacy is, he says, ‘a mere annoyance’. The Beatles irritate Bangs because he feels that they stood, at one point, for an ‘unconscious sense of intimacy and community which automatically self-destructed the instant it became self-conscious’, which instant he traces back to ‘the very day we opened up Sgt. Pepper and saw those four smiling moustached faces assuring us with a slightly patronizing benevolence that all was well.’ Bangs can’t abide what he calls the ‘smugness’ of that big photo on the Sgt. Pepper gatefold. For him, as for many Americans, all was not well, and the Beatles claiming that it was didn’t make it so. So what, in Bangs’ view, was the problem?

We can search Bangs’ writings, the funniest and punchiest and most anguished corpus of rock journalism ever created, and we will never find a coherent critique of American society. Bangs tried to give up rock writing on the grounds that ‘writing Allman Brothers reviews was not the proper training for a Spengler‘, but he never managed it; his self-loathing prevented him from realising that in the America of his time, someone who wrote Allman Brothers reviews was almost perfectly placed to be a Spengler. (Greil Marcus being the closest any American rock writer has come to achieving the goal.) The closest Bangs came to a straight statement about the discontent of America was that nobody had real emotions anymore. His prescription for this sickness of the soul amounted to massive amounts of booze and fuzzy guitars. Bangs, it’s fair to say, had a low tolerance for the good humour of the Beatles.

The Beatles are perennially popular and perennially unpopular because the best of their work maintains a tension between aggression and what for want of a better word I’ll call hospitality. Devin McKinney, in his hugely underrated book Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History, noted that the first generation of rock & rollers lacked what the Beatles brought to the game, which was ambiguity. Buddy Holly was inventive, but too polite. Chuck Berry was aggressive, but the songs all sound like each other. Nobody was going to project their fantasies onto cheery journeymen like Carl Perkins and Fats Domino, Elvis got straightened out by the Army and Jerry Lee Lewis was a batshit-insane redneck who married a small girl. It took The Beatles to become the first true pop superstars because they seemed to accommodate every angle. They played harder and with more aggression than anyone else in 1962, but they wore suits and were friendly, funny and cheeky in interviews. The journalist Maureen Cleave, in a February 1963 profile of them at the very outset of Beatlemania, quoted a friend (a ‘Liverpool housewife’) who phrased it perfectly: ‘They look beat up and depraved in the nicest possible way.’

That’s why the Rolling Stones were not a progression beyond the Beatles, but a throwback. The Stones could get away with playing the rebel because the Beatles were charming enough for everyone else, and quicker-witted than any of their contemporaries. When a friendly host like Tommy Smothers attempted to interview The Who, at the outset of their legendary, eardrum-busting appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, you sense that the band wants to come across all laconic and hard but instead they just look like a bunch of tongue-tied amateurs.

When Paul McCartney decided to be the first Beatle to own up to using LSD he ran rings around his interviewer, pointing out that the media were pressuring the band for its own purposes, that ultimately the decision to broadcast his admission was in their hands, and all he was doing was deciding not to lie about it.

The last time the British media behaved as though it had the choice to not broadcast a hot story was when Edward VIII was shagging a married woman.

The Beatles’ instincts were highly unusual in rock music. They wanted everyone on their side, not just one sector of the market. That’s why Sgt Pepper is perhaps their greatest album; it balances their intention better than any other, and the reason US critics tended not to agree is that, from an American perspective, the summer of 1967 was not a time for balance but a time, as the MC5 put it a couple of years later, ‘for each and every of you to decide whether you are gonna be the problem, or whether you are gonna be the solution.’

The Beatles tended not to think like this. Even when Lennon attempted to steer them in the direction of revolution — on, well, ‘Revolution’ — he first of all hedged his bets, singing ‘You can count me out . . . in . . .’ on the White Album’s ‘Revolution 1’, and changing it definitively to ‘out’ on the far more raucous single version, which was recorded later. He then confused matters even more when the band came to mime the song to his live vocal for a promotional film; he clearly adds an ‘in’ that isn’t on the record (0:51). Talk about fence-sitting. And yet this tendency to qualify, to add ambiguity, is one of the greatest strengths in the Beatles’ recordings and is one of the reasons why they now seem to exist in a sort of timeless Beatles era, an alternate universe from the actual 1960s, whereas something like Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’ seems to belong far more to its own era. (This is probably because it’s been used in way more documentaries about the 60s than the Beatles’ music has, which in turn is probably for licensing reasons. Other 60s rock & pop music is used to illustrate footage about the 60s; the Beatles’ music is used to illustrate footage about the Beatles.)

More ongoing meditations on the Beatles in future posts, I’m sure.

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The Beatles and Ambiguity #1

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